First Justice, Now Peace

Joan Williams, Miss Crown City 1958 who was denied a place in the Rose Parade due to her race, has died

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/28/2019

Joan Williams, whose story of racial reconciliation inspired the nation, passed away from ovarian cancer on Feb. 20 at her home near the Rose Bowl. She was 86.

More than a half-century after she was discriminated against by city officials in 1958 and denied a ride in the Rose Parade because she was African American, the Pasadena Weekly reported on her story and she finally rode in the parade in 2015.

Pasadena City Councilman John Kennedy invited Williams’ children Angela Williams, Robyn Wood and Robert “Chip” Williams to say a few words about their mother at Monday’s City Council meeting. The council adjourned the meeting in her honor.

“Joan Williams was a proud, resolute, kind, loving, contemplative person who did not seek attention, who let the story of her disrespect remain untold for many years because she was not seeking personal attention,” Kennedy told the Weekly. “However, for the greater good, and to help build ‘one Pasadena,’ she allowed [the Weekly] to bring a light to her story, part of the Pasadena story, part of the American story.”

“I am saddened to hear the news of her passing but feel relief that the city of Pasadena was able to right a past wrong and give her Roses while she was still alive,” said former Council member Jacque Robinson.

‘Righting that Wrong’

In 1958, then-26-year-old Williams was nominated by her co-workers at City Hall to represent Pasadena as Miss Crown City, which was a Rose Queen-esque honor at the time. She was also the first African American hired to work at City Hall, albeit inadvertently, in what was then known as the Municipal Light and Power Department.

Williams was “selected from a field of seven finalists by a committee of judges from newspapers and the Tournament of Roses Association,” according to an Aug. 3, 1958, article in the Independent Star News.

In her capacity as Miss Crown City 1958, she was scheduled to ride on the city’s float in the Jan. 1, 1959, Rose Parade, but was denied the honor after city officials discovered the light complexioned Williams was African American and canceled the float. Then-Pasadena Mayor Seth Miller, who had crowned Williams at a coronation ceremony, later refused to take a photo with her at the annual city employees’ picnic at Brookside Park, and she was also not allowed to cut the grand opening ribbons at Sears, J.W. Robinson and other businesses. Her City Hall coworkers and bosses ostracized her until she left the job.

Inr 2013, this reporter interviewed Williams about her experience for an article in the Pasadena Weekly, the first time her story was told. On April 5, 2014, the local nonprofit Men Educating Men About Health (MEMAH) honored Williams at a gala at the Western Justice Center. During that event, Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) presented an award to Williams. City Council members Steve Madison, Terry Tornek, Robinson and Kennedy were also in attendance, and they later directed city staff to investigate her story. Madison was the first city official to apologize for the 1958 incident “on behalf of my forebears,” he told her.

In May 2014, Robinson, who was vice mayor at the time, called on the city to officially apologize and offered Williams the opportunity to ride in the parade with her in a car. In October 2014, then-Mayor Bill Bogaard and then-Tournament of Roses Executive Director Bill Flinn took Williams to lunch and offered her a spot on a float in the upcoming parade.

“She had put the ugliness of [the 1958 incident] behind her, so when she was contacted to ride on a float in the 2015 parade she wasn’t sure she wanted to do it because it was like opening up a door that she had closed,” Williams’ son Chip told the Weekly. “But she realized that it meant a lot to the community and would allow for healing, so she felt it was important to ride on the float so that there would be reconciliation.”

Williams told the Weekly that before accepting the offer to ride on a float, she wanted to make sure it wasn’t sponsored by an organization that espoused homophobia in any way.

Pasadena Weekly again wrote about her story on Dec. 24, 2014, after which dozens of local, national and international media outlets picked it up.

On New Year’s Eve 2014, Bogaard delivered a formal letter of apology to Williams on behalf of the city written on the mayor’s official letterhead.

“I am truly pleased that you will be in the parade this year, and I am extremely sorry that this opportunity was not made available to you in 1958,” Bogaard wrote. “You have kindly said that the Tournament’s invitation to you represents a new commitment in Pasadena to our efforts to embrace differences and welcome all members of the community. I share that view with you. As Mayor, I hereby apologize to you for the experience you had as Miss Crown City in 1958 and I thank you for accepting this year’s invitation and for the friendship you have expressed for Pasadena.”

Just before riding in the parade, Williams told the Weekly that she was “delighted and really appreciate that the city recognized that they needed to make some kind of gesture towards righting that wrong. Pasadena has shown the community that they’re on the right path and that they’re recognizing these things and that it’s something they need to follow through on.”

On Jan. 1, 2015, nearly six decades after being discriminated against by Pasadena city officials for being black, Joan Williams finally got to ride in the 126th Rose Parade in the lead theme banner float. The apt theme that year was “Inspiring Stories.”

“To be on that float is especially important because it will point out that with people of good will working to correct these mistakes, change can come,” said Williams. “We hope it won’t take so long, but when you look at our history, none of it has happened overnight, none of it has happened without a fight. The fight goes on.”

Chip said she was “happy to represent the community and have that closure.”

‘To the Betterment of Pasadena’

After riding in the parade, Williams told the Weekly that the most important thing to her was the community showing her kindness and appreciation along the route. She heard from people all across the country who were excited to tune in and watch Miss Crown City finally riding in the parade. KTLA, however, did not mention her in their televised broadcast of the parade.

In the months that followed the parade, several organizations and local and state officials, such as then-LA County Supervisor Michael Antonovich and state Assembly member Chris Holden, honored Williams.

“Joan Williams was the model of poise and grace,” Holden wrote in a text message to the Weekly. “Several years ago, I honored her on the Assembly floor during Black History Month as an unsung hero in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of civil rights. As a result of her courage in calling out racial discrimination in the early years of the Tournament of Roses, her contributions to the betterment of Pasadena will not be forgotten.”

Jim Morris, executive director of MEMAH, the organization that originally honored her in 2014, said he is “saddened that Joan has left us but happy that she lived long enough to get the justice that was due to her.”

‘A Mother Figure in the Community’

Williams graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1950. She attended Wolfe’s School of Costume Design by day and took general studies courses at Los Angeles City College by night. She saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver a sermon on February 28, 1960, at Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, in which he talked about the Montgomery bus boycott and the foundations of a meaningful life.

In 1952, she married Capt. Robert W. Williams, who was one of the original “Tuskegee Airmen” fighter pilots in World War II whose story helped inspire the movie of the same name starring Laurence Fishburne. Robert also co-wrote and co-executive produced the film, which was released by HBO in 1995 and won a Peabody Award and three Emmy Awards.

Joan and Robert were married for 45 years when he died from prostate cancer in 1997. They met when Robert returned home after the war and enrolled at UCLA. They enjoyed golfing at Brookside Park and dancing to jazz music. Her favorite was Ella Fitzgerald. She also designed her own clothing.

Williams said she and her husband encountered racism from realtors when they tried to purchase a home in the San Fernando Valley, so they built their own house in 1963 on Arroyo Boulevard overlooking the Rose Bowl in the Arroyo Seco using African American architects, designers and contractors. That year, she started working at Kaiser Permanente as a receptionist, where she worked for 32 years, including five years in a Medicare office in Kaiser’s regional office on Walnut Street.

“My mother was a graceful, elegant and caring woman,” said Chip. “My mother’s and father’s open arms and open hearts welcomed people from all over the world into their home. Many of my gay friends felt that where their parents didn’t accept them, they found a surrogate mother in my mother who did accept them. She was a mother figure to many people in our community.”

Chip added that his mother was very involved in her community, including by advocating for proper street lighting and equitable distribution of Rose Bowl event traffic. She served as treasurer and financial secretary of the Pasadena-Altadena chapter of an African American women’s service sorority called the Links. In that capacity, she also organized a Saturday school for students in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) who needed support with reading and math, and served as the school’s director for two years.

After retiring in 1994 from Kaiser, she volunteered at the Pasadena AIDS Service Center, read to PUSD students and participated in Leadership Pasadena.

Joan Williams is survived by three children, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Her family is currently planning a memorial.

Outnumbered and irrelevant

Supporters of 2019 Rose Queen drown out Westboro Baptist Church picketers with messages of love

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/28/2019

Westboro Baptist Church protesters arrived in Pasadena with a whimper Monday morning. 

A half-dozen or so members of the anti-gay, anti-Semitic, Kansas-based church picketed on the sidewalk outside Pasadena’s Sequoyah High School, located on the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church campus on Orange Grove Boulevard.

On its website, Westboro said they were targeting Sequoyah because the 2019 Rose Queen Louise Deser Siskel wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times on New Year’s Eve coming out as bisexual. The column also noted that she is Jewish and a senior at Sequoyah.

The Westboro picketers, including Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of the late church founder Fred Phelps, were outnumbered by dozens of counter-protesters in several clusters on and around the campus and in the Rose Bowl parking lot about a mile down the road.

“Today we met hate and venom with love and compassion,” Jessica Gable, communications coordinator at Neighborhood Church, told the Pasadena Weekly. “Members of our community, as well as the Pasadena community at large, surrounded the Sequoyah students with support and messages of kindness. We are thrilled at the triumph of inclusion that we witnessed today.”

Several Pasadena police officers and private security were on the scene, as was Siskel, who was surrounded by supporters. Westboro picketers held signs with offensive — and mostly irrelevant — slogans, such as “God sent the shooter” and “God hates Christ-rejecting, apostate Jews.”

Siskel’s supporters held up rainbow banners and signs with slogans such as “Love > Hate,” “I love my trans son,” “Love lives here,” “My God loves all and so do we” and “Blessed to be LGBT,” among many others.

On Sunday, Neighborhood Church Social Justice and Inclusion staff and LGBTQ community organizers hosted a peace training and poster-making workshop. The fruits of their labor were posted around the campus and written in chalk on the sidewalk, featuring messages of love and acceptance.

The protest lasted less than half an hour and ended without incident. Last week, Neighborhood Church officials said they were discouraging people from engaging with Westboro protesters.
'Rise Above'

Anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church plans to picket Monday at Pasadena school attended by LGBTQ Rose Queen

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/21/2019

Members of anti-gay and anti-Semitic Westboro Baptist Church have targeted openly bisexual 2019 Rose Queen Louise Deser Siskel and are expected to picket Monday morning at her high school.

According to the church’s website, godhatesfags.com, members of the Kansas-based congregation will picket from 7:45 to 8:15 a.m. at Sequoyah High School, located on the campus of Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in west Pasadena. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described Westboro as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

“That poor child has been so saturated in filthiness that she bragged about being a pervert of the deepest waters (‘the first LGBTQ queen’), honoring what God has called abominable. Uh-oh, that calls for preaching!” a press release on the church’s website states.

In a column published in the Los Angeles Times on New Year’s Eve, Siskel came out as bisexual and noted that she is Jewish.

“[I]n this new, very public position, I feel it’s important to present myself authentically, especially to those who look to the Royal Court as a representation of our community,” wrote Siskel, who could not be reached for comment. “While I am almost certainly not the first member of the LGBTQ community on the court, I hope that by saying so publicly, I might encourage others to be proud of who they are.”

Westboro followers are best known for demonstrating at funerals of gay people, service members and victims of national tragedies such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Westboro’s website claims the church has picketed 63,534 times in 1,033 cities across the country. Church officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Westboro’s messages are “extremely offensive and inflammatory,” Neighborhood Church officials wrote on their Facebook page. “While Sequoyah has been advised not to engage with picketers, we are planning a peaceful response on our campus to counter their hateful rhetoric with a message of love, LGBTQ welcome and interfaith solidarity.”

The Rev. Lissa Anne Gundlach, senior minister at Neighborhood Church, wrote in a public Facebook group on Pasadena politics that she is calling on “our community [to] come together to rise above this hate group.”

Members of the public Facebook group also wrote that Pasadena police suggested that people refrain from counter-protesting Westboro because of the proximity of young children. The Fair Oaks Preschool is located on the same campus. They also wrote that police will be standing by and security will be present. Gundlach recommended that parents drop off their children earlier than 7:45 a.m. or later than 8:15 a.m. to avoid the Westboro picketers.

“Maintaining a safe, healthy environment for the students is our top priority. Therefore, we ask that
you refrain from demonstrating on Monday,” Gundlach wrote in a press release. “If you would like to participate as a peacekeeper in our nonviolent response, please join us on Sunday for a training and poster-making workshop conducted by the Neighborhood Church Social Justice and Inclusion staff and LGBTQ+ Community Organizers. The workshop will be a safe space for Neighborhood Church members, Sequoyah faculty and students, and the San Gabriel Valley community at large.”

A Peacekeeping Training and Poster Making Workshop will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday on Neighborhood House Front Porch. Registration is requested: bit.ly/nuuclove. For more information, contact church Social Justice and Inclusion Coordinator Luis Sierra Campos at Lcampos@neighborhooduu.org or call (626) 449.3470 Ext. 18.

In an email exchange with a concerned resident, Pasadena Police Chief John Perez described Westboro as “peaceful and cooperative” based on previous encounters with the group. He wrote that they expect “a very loud group of 15 people or so — likely not much more.”

He added that police will “plan for contingencies and keep the view of the police to a minimum to avoid any issues. Our strategy is to get groups in and out and have PPD resources organized to quickly respond as needed.”

Westboro Baptist Church was founded in 1955 by pastor Fred Phelps as an offshoot of the East Side Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Phelps, who died in 2014, attended and received an associate degree from Pasadena’s John Muir College in the late 1940s and early 50s before it merged with Pasadena Junior College to become what is now Pasadena City College.

A June 11, 1951, an article in TIME Magazine reported that 21-year-old Phelps preached to fellow students about their sins, including “promiscuous petting, evil language, profanity, cheating, teachers’ filthy jokes in classrooms and pandering to the lusts of the flesh.”

According to the LA Times, Phelps met his wife at the Arizona Bible Institute and they moved to Kansas in 1954. Westboro’s congregation is “heavily composed of his relatives, including many of his 13 children and 54 grandchildren.” It holds a hyper-Calvinist worldview, although it is not technically affiliated with a specific denomination of Christianity.

Phelps was born in Mississippi in 1929 and ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1947. He was also an attorney who argued civil rights cases but was disbarred in Kansas in 1979 for harassing a witness on the stand and calling her a “slut.”

Phelps and his congregants began their picketing campaigns in 1991. In 1998, they became infamous after they picketed at the funeral of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was beaten and killed because he was gay.

In 2011, the US Supreme Court ruled that demonstrations such as Westboro’s picketing of the 2006 funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq, “no matter how odious, were legal as long as protesters obeyed state and local laws setting a minimum distance between themselves and mourners,” according to the Times.

Pasadena Police Lt. Jason Clawson, adjutant to Perez, wrote in an email to the Pasadena Weekly that Westboro does not need a permit to hold their protest because of their First Amendment rights.

“The city is aware of the protest as Westboro reached out to the PPD,” he wrote, adding that the department is not aware of plans for a counter protest.

_______________________________________

Pride USA's response: https://lgbt.10ztalk.com/2019/02/23/westboro-baptist-church-to-protest-high-school-attended-by-bisexual-rose-queen/

All Saints Church's response: https://allsaints-pas.org/when-hate-comes-to-town/

A complicated legacy

Former FBI Director James Comey discusses his firing, the Russia investigation and why Americans must vote Trump out of office

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/14/2019

The United States is in sore need of ethical leadership, former FBI director James Comey said Monday during a talk at the Ambassador Auditorium in West Pasadena as part of the 23rd season of the Distinguished Speaker Series.

“We must make sure good follows bad,” said Comey before an audience of more than 1,200 people. “I’m so worried that the picture of leadership today — not just in our national government, although that’s deeply concerning to me without regard to policy differences but in terms of values — but also in sports, entertainment, religious institutions, nonprofit organizations and corporations. The vision of leadership is so unethical that I worry people are going to say, ‘That’s just the way it is’ and especially young people will just step away from it, and then we’re going to be deeply sorry.”

His wide-ranging remarks covered his hiring by President Obama (who he said is the best listener he’s ever met), his firing by President Trump (which he said was tacky and tasteless), the death of his 9-day-old son Collin, his role in the Russia investigation, Trump’s request for loyalty from him and how important kindness, toughness, confidence, humility, humor and listening are to ethical leadership.

“Trump doesn’t know anything about leadership,” Comey said. “I’ve never ever heard Trump laugh. It is a deeply concerning absence and a sign of insecurity in a leader. And to tell that man important stuff you almost always have to interrupt him. He’s a deeply insecure person.”

In 2013, President Obama appointed Comey as the seventh director of the FBI, succeeding Robert S. Mueller III, who now serves as the special counsel investigating whether there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump obstructed justice of that investigation. Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, shortly after Comey was unceremoniously fired by Trump.

Difficult Circumstances

Before leading the FBI, Comey served as counsel for private law firms, Lockheed Martin and Bridgewater Associates. He also served as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft in the Bush II administration.

Comey has a complicated legacy. His actions as FBI director during the 2016 election left both Democrats and Republicans upset with him. On July 5, 2016, he unexpectedly went around Justice Department leadership and recommended that no criminal charges should be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State but added that she had been “extremely careless.”

On October 28, 2016, just days before the election, Comey announced that the FBI had found new Clinton emails and was reopening the investigation. The emails turned out to be duplicates, but the damage was done. Meanwhile, Comey kept silent on the fact that Trump and his associates were being investigated by the FBI for their potentially criminal interactions with Russians, seen by some as a double standard on Comey’s part. On Monday, Comey said he regrets having to be a part of that process, but thinks he made the right decisions under difficult circumstances.

“I don’t know [if my actions helped elect Trump],” he said. “I really, really, really hope not. But it doesn’t change how I think about my decision—it just increases the pain. The FBI wasn’t on anybody’s side and it also wasn’t out to get Trump.”

‘I Expect Loyalty’

On Jan. 27, 2017, Trump invited Comey to dinner at the White House, an unusual situation for a president and an FBI director. Comey wrote in his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” that the move made him feel uncomfortable because “the president of the United States had invited me to dinner and decided my job security was on the menu.” He said that Trump told him, “I need loyalty [from you]. I expect loyalty.” The request reminded Comey of tactics employed by Cosa Nostra bosses, whom he helped prosecute in the 1990s.

“A real leader never asks for loyalty,” Comey said in Pasadena. “All they do is give.”

Trump also told Comey he hoped the FBI would let go of the investigation against his then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, during the transition. It was then that Flynn told the Russians not to overreact to Obama’s sanctions as punishment for meddling in the election because Trump would soon be president and overturn them.

Flynn was fired in February 2017 and soon began cooperating with Mueller. Former New Jersey Governor and Trump supporter Chris Christie wrote in a new book that Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner naïvely believed firing Flynn would end the Russia investigation.

Because Comey declined to admit publicly that Trump was not personally under investigation at the time, Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017. Comey learned about his dismissal by seeing a headline on TV as the director was speaking to FBI agents at a field office in Los Angeles. He said in Pasadena on Monday that he felt both numb and stunned.

The White House’s official line was that Comey was fired because of the way he mishandled the Clinton email investigation, citing a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But one day after firing Comey, Trump invited Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov into the Oval Office at the White House, where he told them, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

And during a televised interview with NBC’s Lester Holt two days after firing Comey, Trump said, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’” Trump later claimed Holt doctored the footage of that interview.

Trump also said he would have fired Comey whether or not Rosenstein wrote that justification memo, and in an upcoming book by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who was also fired under pressure from Trump just hours before he would be eligible for retirement benefits, McCabe wrote that Trump ordered Rosenstein to write that memo against his wishes.

‘Shameful’ Attacks

Trump has called Comey an “untruthful slime ball” and a “showboat.” Comey’s “aww shucks” demeanor strikes some as genuine and others as not so much. After Comey had a friend deliver the contemporaneous memos he wrote after his awkward meetings with Trump to the media, Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” When questioned during a congressional hearing about the existence of such tapes, Comey said, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

A lifelong Republican, Comey has since his firing turned his ire on Trump and congressional Republicans. The latter have hauled Comey before Congress several times in the past two years. After the most recent hearings in December, Comey tweeted that it “wasn’t a search for truth, but a desperate attempt to find anything that can be used to attack the institutions of justice investigating this president. They came up empty today but will try again. In the long run, it’ll make no difference because facts are stubborn things.”

Comey told reporters that Republicans were “talking again about Hillary Clinton’s emails, for heaven’s sake,” and called Republicans’ silence in the face of Trump’s attacks on the FBI and other US institutions “shameful.”

“I’ve been a Republican most of my adult life,” he said in Pasadena. “What I say to my Republican colleagues is, imagine the next president’s a Democrat and she starts calling for the jailing of private citizens, attacking the intelligence agencies and the FBI and calling for criminal investigations of her political opponents. What’s your reaction going to be? Your head’s going to explode. So why is it not exploding now? This is about America’s values. I get why Donald Trump is doing it; in a way, it’s kind of his thing. What’s most disturbing is, Republicans are standing there with their hands in their pockets looking at their shoes.”

He added that Trump is trying to burn down the FBI because he sees it as a threat, but that in the long run the institution and the country will survive the Trump presidency.

“We are going to be OK. All of this will pass,” he said. “But we need a moment of inflection in this country. If Trump were removed from office by impeachment, a whole lot of people would believe that there’d been a coup. We need to vote the values that glue us together. We need to remove him from office using that mechanism, so we send a message that we will not have a leader who does not embody those values.”

Learn more about the Distinguished Speaker Series at speakersla.com.